Montgomery County must “use these tough times to define a new normal,” County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said Tuesday as he outlined an operating budget proposal that seeks to close a $300 million gap by slashing 216 county jobs, tapping county employees to bear more of the cost of their benefits and rejecting the school system's request for more county aid.
Under the $4.35 billion plan for fiscal 2012, which begins July 1, county taxpayers would likely see a slight increase in property taxes, which are held at the county charter limit—the rate of inflation plus the value of new construction.
The budget must be approved by the County Council by June 1.
The proposal does not include employee furloughs and avoids the elimination of another 300 county jobs—including some in public safety—that Leggett said were under consideration for cuts.
But it also does not include negotiated pay raises or cost of living adjustments and proposes increasing the amount that county employees would contribute to their group health insurance to 30 percent—a 10 percent increase. Employees also would pay an additional 2 percent into their retirement plans and the county’s retirement contribution would decrease by 2 percent.
In his presentation in Rockville, Leggett acknowledged that county employees have gone without negotiated pay increases and have endured furloughs even as more than 1,000 county jobs have been eliminated over the past five years.
“The alternative to these reductions, however, would be even further layoffs and erosion of services, including reductions of public safety, education, other safety net programs or substantially increasing taxes for our residents and businesses,” he said.
Leggett's proposal calls for maintaining county funding for Montgomery County Public Schools at $1.4 billion—the same level as the current budget. With 3,300 new students enrolled this year, the flat funding level for violating a state mandate that dictates that per-pupil spending remain the same or increase from one fiscal year to the next.
According to Leggett, the county would continue to push for a waiver from the requirement, but defended his decision.
“You simply can’t close a $300 million shortfall by putting over half of the entire budget off-limits,” he said.
While the police budget would increase by one-half of a percent, public safety was not spared cuts.
The fire and rescue service budget would be reduced by 1.7 percent—about $6.8 million. Leggett attributed the cuts to in November's election.
The fire and rescue service’s High School Cadet program would be cut, saving $205,000, but there would be no other service reductions, according to the plan.
Leggett also proposed eliminating the school resource officer program, for about $1 million in savings, and closing police satellite stations in Piney Branch, Olney and East County—saving $21,200. Another $255,000 would be cut from victim and witness services.
The county’s Conservation Corps program, which helps residents age 17 to 25 find work, would be eliminated.
The Energy Tax Rebate program also would end and Earned Income Tax Credit benefits for low-income workers would be reduced by more than 34 percent.
Among health initiatives, the opening of a health center at Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Takoma Park would be delayed by a year and the Montgomery Cares health care program for uninsured, low-income adults would begin requiring a $25 annual co-pay.
Other proposed cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services include reduced supplemental payments to the providers of services to the developmentally disabled, reduced dental care hours, reduced substance abuse treatment services in the adult drug court and the Lawrence Court Halfway House in Rockville and a reduction in in-home aide services for seniors.
Staff would be cut at a number of libraries, including Silver Spring, Twinbrook, Chevy Chase and Long Branch. Six recreation center positions would be cut and the centers would no longer offer youth sports programs (except basketball) or teen special events.
Under Leggett’s plan there would be no cuts to transit routes, senior transportation or nutrition programs, library hours, ambulance service or police specialty units. All county recreation centers would remain open.
The plan proposes a $692 property tax credit for homeowners and an 8.5 percent increase in water and sewer rates, following the budget recently approved by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.
It reflects a $76.5 million increase over the budget approved by the County Council for fiscal 2011.
Much of that increase, Leggett said, is due to the inclusion of $26.1 million for future retiree health benefits—which is still just half of the projected long-term cost of those benefits—and $10 million for snow removal, which has never before been budgeted up front.
Putting those costs aside, “there is a net increase of only $12 million, a 1 percent increase from the [fiscal 2011] budget,” Leggett said.
Leggett’s budget also seeks to restructure county government with the creation of a new Office of Community Engagement.
The new office is projected to save the county $2.8 million by consolidating staffing of the county’s regional services centers, the Office of Community Partnerships, the Office of Human Rights, the Department of Recreation’s Charles W. Gilchrist Center for Cultural Diversity in Wheaton and the Commission for Women.
Leggett also proposed cost savings by following recent recommendations of the county’s Organizational Reform Commission to consolidate the Housing Opportunities Commission and the Department of Housing and Community Affairs, merge certain elements of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s Department of Parks and Recreation with the county recreation department and merge M-NCPPC park police with the county police department.
The proposal to combine the police forces has been particularly controversial, with opponents launching a Facebook campaign to block state legislation to merge the departments.
“Plainly put, Montgomery County has to change the way it does business,” Leggett said. “We needed to do so even before the economic downturn, as I’ve said this many times before. We need to restructure, not just talk about it, in order to save money and deliver services more efficiently.”
The County Council will hold public hearings on the fiscal 2012 operating budget on April 5-7. To sign up to testify call 240-777-7803.
The council is also accepting comments by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by U.S. mail at 100 Maryland Avenue, Rockville, MD 20850, or by calling the council’s budget hotline at 240-777-7802.
Montgomery Village Patch Editor Sebastian Montes contributed to this article.